The City of the Tribes

John Johnson Marshall
Chapter VIII (4) - Start of Chapter

In the County Sligo, Lough Gill is known as “the Killarney of the West,” and at the head of it is Dromahaire, the old home of O’Ruark, known as “the ever smiling village,” with Creevelea Abbey ruins crowning the neighbouring height.

In the West, Galway is known as “The City of the Tribes.” The appellation “Tribes of Galway” was first applied as a term of reproach by Cromwell’s forces to a number of the leading families, on account of their friendship and attachment to each other during the troublous period succeeding the rebellion of 1641, but which the latter afterwards adopted as an honourable mark of distinction. They are usually accounted as thirteen families, but if the ancient name of Deane is included there were fourteen tribes as in the following rhyme:—

“Athy, Blake, Burke, Bodkin, Browne, Deane, Darcy, Lynch,

Joyce, Kirwan, Martin, Morris, Skerett, French.”

In the year 1518 amongst other regulations it was ordered that “neither O, ne Mac, should strut ne swagger through the streets of Gallway,” and the following singular inscription was formerly to be seen over the west gate:—

“From the ferocious O’Flaherties good Lord deliver us.”

M. M‘D. Bodkin in his “Recollections of an Irish Judge,” relates a different story of the origin of the Tribes of Galway, on the authority of Father Tom Burke, O.P. Both the judge and the great Dominican being tribesmen themselves, can afford to relate a joke at their own expense, that might not be so well received by a mixed company of Galway men from an outsider. The story is as follows:—

“In the good old times a Spanish ship was wrecked off the coast of Galway. They were rescued and brought before the King of Connaught, who was a mighty monarch in those days. Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed in the least like the King of Connaught. There was, however, one serious defect in his gorgeous get up. Like Achilles he was vulnerable in the heel. In plain English the resplendent monarch went barefoot. It is not surprising therefore, that he cast covetous eyes at the stout leather brogues in which the feet of the Spanish sailors were encased. Pair after pair—he tried them on himself vainly. The feet of the monarch were of royal proportions and the kingly toes could not be squeezed into any one of the brogues.

Thereupon, he returned the seamen to the King of Spain with handsome presents for his brother sovereign, and a request couched in the choicest language of diplomacy, that his Majesty of Spain would send in return twelve pairs of the largest brogues in his kingdom. Either the Connaught King’s handwriting was illegible or an initial letter got obliterated by the salt water. This much at least is certain, when the document came to the eyes of the King of Spain it read—“twelve pairs of the biggest rogues in Spain.” Very willingly the King complied with the strange request, the rogues were collected by proclamation and the cargo despatched. Thus were founded the twelve tribes of Galway.”

Two other Connaught Counties are celebrated in the couplet:—

“Roscommon for aitin’ the mate

Mayo for lickin’ the plate.”

referring to the rich grazing lands of Roscommon compared with the poorer soil of Mayo.

Of the Munster County that bounds Galway on the South, Ludlow, the Parliamentary General, when he entered the barony of Burrin, in the north of County Clare, in 1756 [sic], is said to have described it as “a country where he could find neither wood enough to hang a man, nor earth enough to bury a man in,” and the description holds good of some parts of it to this day as the bare white (limestone) rock rises everywhere, and the only vegetation consists of detached tufts of herbage growing in the crevices. Lisdoonvarna, a picturesque watering place in the county, used to be “the Harrogate of Ireland.”